Summer’s practically here, and with that comes the end of the regular television schedule. Sure, you could go outside and enjoy the sunshine, but the real world can be exhausting. You need something fun to binge-watch in the TV offseason, and I’m here to tell you that Black Books is the show that you have been looking for. Plus, with only 18 short episodes, which could all be consumed over the course of a lazy weekend (it’s currently streaming on Hulu Plus). Hell, you could watch it in one day if you’re feeling particularly ambitious. I believe in you.
Black Books is a Channel 4 sitcom that ran for three seasons from 2000 through 2004, and it’s the brainchild of comedian Dylan Moran (who also stars) and Graham Linehan (The IT Crowd, Father Ted). The show focuses on Bernard Black (Moran), proprietor of the second-hand bookshop, Black Books, and all around bastard. If you like your protagonists to be misanthropic, alcoholic chain-smokers, Bernard is your man. Along for the ride is his best friend, Fran (Tamsin Greig), who owns the knick knack shop next door, and his new assistant, Manny (Bill Bailey). Black Books is like Seinfeld‘s weird British cousin: these characters are terrible at their jobs, and sometimes terrible at being human beings. This is a show that revels in absurdity, with a simple joke usually escalating to ridiculous extremes by the end of the episode. There’s a lot to like in Black Books, and here are a few reasons why you should check it out.
Wine is practically a character of its own in Black Books. Nearly every episode includes a trip to the pub, and despite trying to run two small businesses, Bernard and Fran frequently close up shop early and crack open a bottle. Perhaps the best example of the consequences of Bernard’s excessive drinking is in “The Grapes of Wrath.” An old friend makes the unwise decision to ask Bernard to housesit, and gives him access to an extensive wine selection. Through a series of miscommunications (isn’t that always the way?), calamity ensues and the situation devolves into a hilarious Frankensteinian situation while also playing on the snobbery of wine culture.
Also, there is the wine lolly.
The Absurd Situations
Part of what makes Black Books so great is the escalation. For example, in the episode “The Great Lock Out,” the Black Books shop gets a new security system. Of course, Manny being Manny, everything gets messed up and Bernard ends up being locked out for the night. In order to get out of the rain, Bernard ends up getting a job at a fast food restaurant. Because that’s the logical choice. Meanwhile, Manny resorts to desperate measures to ensure his own survival.
Also, in order to avoid doing his taxes in the pilot episode, Bernard not only opens his door to some Jehovah Witnesses, he invites them into his home and gets them totally plastered. No one ever makes good choices on Black Books, and that’s part of what makes it so great.
Fans of the show Spaced will get a kick out of the role reversal that occurs in Black Books. Bill Bailey played Tim Bisley’s boss, Bilbo, on Spaced, and Simon Pegg shows up in the episode “Manny Come Home” as Manny’s new boss, the super creepy Evan, who monitors his bathroom breaks and scans his retinas every 80 seconds.
Anglophiles will also enjoy cameos from Martin Freeman:
And Nick Frost:
Bernard and Manny
Bernard and Manny are the yin to the other’s yang: Bernard hates people and making an effort in any aspect of his life, while Manny (though quite stupid) is well-meaning and works hard to keep Black Books afloat. Bernard, in his arrogance, thinks that he could keep the shop afloat without Manny. He obviously can’t. There aren’t a lot of “sweet” moments on Black Books. It just isn’t that kind of show. However, the camaraderie and habits that build between them are weirdly endearing. The shop is a delicate ecosystem; you can’t remove either of them or the place falls apart, even if Manny is a bit of an enabler.
Her last name, Katzenjammer, is literally German slang for “hangover.” Fran is the epitome of self-destructive: she’s a terrible business owner, an even worse friend, and makes very questionable dating choices. However, she’s somehow the most functional of the main trio. Sure, she’ll ruin a hen party or forget to show up when she’s her best friend’s birthing partner, but she means well. Tamsin Greig’s performance is truly great.
The One Liners
To put it simply, you will learn some of the best insults ever spoken from this show. Moran and Bailey both have background in stand up comedy, and it shows. Black Books is insanely quotable (Roweeeeeeeena!), and you may be inspired to write a terrible children’s book or eat a delicious biscuit all on your own.
It’s literally just three people hanging out and working the least possible amount that they can. Each episode is fairly self-contained, so while you should watch it all the way through, you can literally pick it up anywhere and still laugh your ass off. Unlike some shows that get a little too clever for their own good, Black Books knows that its strength is in its performers and its quick wit.
Anyway, I hope that I’ve convinced you to give this great show a shot. It’s truly an under-appreciated gem.